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The Turkish government’s recent crackdown on the country’s police, military, and judiciary has led to the emergence of a permissive environment for many kinds of smuggling, trafficking, and terrorist financing.

Triggered by the graft scandals unveiled on December 17 and 25 of 2013 and the government’s proclivity toward authoritarianism, Turkey seems to be moving away from the West and its relationships with European countries and the United States. In both scandals, the police detected serious corrupt activity by Turkish government ministers that involved an Iranian money launderer and facilitator, Reza Zarrab, who was arrested in the United States in March 2016 on charges similar to those the Turkish police announced in the December 17 scandal, and the son of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

After these scandals, the government accelerated the momentum toward authoritarianism, exhibiting a retaliatory attitude by purging thousands of police officers, military personnel, and judiciary personnel. The motivation behind this crackdown was to prevent any future investigation that could aim to disclose any government linkage to terrorist financiers and corrupt businessmen.

However, these purges have created vacuums in many areas that have been filled by organized crime and terrorist groups. Although the police operations in these graft scandals were conducted by only the Istanbul Financial Crimes Unit, the entire drug trafficking unit was purged, and the government assigned to that unit police officers who lacked the skills for fighting against drug traffickers.

As an unintended result, the government has created a permissive environment for drug trafficking.

Turkish police had the capacity to seize tons of heroin, conduct around 30,000 drug operations, and arrest around 50,000 traffickers each year until 2014. In some years, the seizures by Turkish police exceeded the seizures in all European countries combined. Moreover, the Turkish drug unit had the capacity to provide international training programs for dozens of countries before 2014.

After 2013, law enforcement officials issued its yearly drug report only for 2014, which confirms the reduced capacity of law enforcement. In 2014, seizures of cannabis declined by 49.5 percent compared to 2013, while captagon seizures declined by 94.5 percent and ecstasy by 53.6 percent. The drug reports for 2015 and 2016 have not been released yet.

Seizures in high-volume heroin cities such as in Van, Istanbul, and Hakkari were much lower between 2014 and 2016 than they were before 2014. In Hakkari, one of the entry points for Iranian heroin, the police seized only 2.5 kilos of heroin in the first three month of 2014. That compares with around 500 kilos in the same period in 2013.

Also in 2014, traffickers began transferring huge amounts of heroin from Iran. The rare police seizure of drugs in other Turkish cities confirmed the opportunistic approach of the traffickers. They saw the weakness and incompetency that emerged as a result of purging entire anti-drug units and exploited the situation. For instance, in Erzurum and Kocaeli provinces, around 600 kg of heroin was seized in 2014. The fact that the traffickers have risked transferring larger amount of heroin indicates their confidence that they will not be interdicted. In a wiretapping recorded immediately after the purges in 2014, one of the Iranian traffickers said “…ship heroin as much as you can since there is a dissention between the government and law enforcement.”

The government’s firing of 21,777 police officers and 4,317 judges and prosecutors has left a vacuum and created an environment that facilitates Turkey becoming a heroin-processing country.

In the late 1970s, Turkey was pronounced as a processing country where Turkish Kurds processed opium into heroin in clandestine labs in areas closer to the Iranian border. This heroin was exported to Europe using various routes. There were no heroin-producing labs in Turkey between 2010 and 2012. Confirming this result, there were no seizures of any morphine-based materials used in processing heroin in Turkey in 2013. Unfortunately, the evisceration of law enforcement has returned Turkey to its status as a processing country and spurred processing activity in some counties in the cities of Hakkari, Mus, and Van.

Similarly, traffickers have begun to process methamphetamine in Turkey. News media reports confirm Turkey’s reemergence as a methamphetamine processing country, reporting that the police found laboratories in Istanbul, Gaziantep, and Bursa in 2015, 2016, and 2017. While Turkey was a trans-shipment country for Iranian methamphetamine until 2013, it has tended to become a source country since then.

Immediately after the assignment of new law enforcement and judiciary personnel, all wiretappings in drug trafficking investigations were shut down in early 2014. The closing of thousands of wiretappings brought about discontinuities in the fight against drug trafficking. Additionally, the purging of police officers who knew how to speak the Persian and Nigerian Igbo languages has presented more opportunities for Iranian and Nigerian traffickers who have active linkages to heroin and cocaine trafficking in Turkey.

Furthermore, the police have lost their ability to carry out organized crime investigations that include wiretapping, the deployment of undercover agents, and the use of surveillance. Rather, the newly assigned police have made ostensible antidrug operations involving thousands of officers, but they seized only several grams of cannabis. Being concerned about statistics, the police have exploited drug informants by making payments in return for seizing only the drug material. The police have arrested only the driver, a person with no connection to the drug trafficking group members, in these informant-exploited seizures.

It should be noted that Turkish police have scaled down their capacity to conduct international-level joint operations. The European drug liaison officers in Turkey have complained about the country’s lack of willingness and capacity to cooperate against transnational drug traffickers.

Although drug use in Turkey is at an alarming level, there are few news media reports about drug addicts because such reports are perceived as criticism of the government. Media outlets in Turkey are frightened about being misunderstood by the government and facing its wrath.

In a nutshell, it would not be wrong to say that the changes in government priorities and policies after the graft scandals in Turkey have crippled the country’s capacity to fight drug trafficking.

The purging of anti-drug units has generated a favorable environment for both local and transnational drug groups in the Balkans trafficking route that carries Afghan heroin via Iran and Turkey to European countries.

This blog has been written by Mahmut Cengiz, PhD who is an Adjunct Faculty and Research Scholar at TraCCC of the George Mason University and a Global Initiative Network Member.

Photo credit: Anadolu Agency